STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - IKEA, the world's biggest furniture retailer, has come under heavy criticism in its home market Sweden after it airbrushed women out of its latest catalogue in Saudi Arabia, raising questions about its policies towards gender equality.
IKEA, famous for budget furniture in self-build flat packs and huge stores, said it regretted removing the women from pictures in the annual booklet which otherwise looks roughly the same in all its markets.
The women removed from pictures in the catalogue for the conservative Islamic kingdom included one in pyjamas in front of a bathroom mirror and one of IKEA's female designers.
"It is not the local franchisee that has requested the retouch of the discussed pictures," IKEA franchisor Inter IKEA Group B.V. said in a statement late on Monday. "We will naturally review our routines and working process, to ensure that this will not happen again."
Currently, franchises have the final say on the production of the catalogues, including pictures, Inter IKEA Systems spokeswoman Ulrika Englesson Sandman said.
Swedish Gender Equality Minister Nyamko Sabuni criticised the airbrushing, saying that companies needed to stick to their principles also abroad.
"And if there is any country in the world that needs to know IKEA's values, it is Saudi Arabia. Therefore it is a pity that it is there they choose to abandon part of their values, in this case equality," she told news agency TT.
Women in Saudi Arabia are barred from driving and must have the consent of a male "guardian" to travel abroad, work or have some types of elective surgery.
Magazines or other publications featuring photographs of women in skimpy clothing are censored and restaurants are segregated into sections for single men and for families with women to avoid gender mixing.
Sweden's European Union Minister Birgitta Ohlsson on Twitter called the move "medieval", while European Union Minister Ewa Bjorling noted that women cannot be airbrushed out of reality.
"If Saudi Arabia doesn't allow women to be seen, heard or to work, they lose out on half of their intellectual capital. This shows they still have a long way to go to reach equality between women and men in Saudi Arabia," she said in an email.
IKEA has airbrushed women out of several Saudi catalogues since its first store opening there in the 1980s, a spokeswoman at IKEA Group, which produces the catalogues on behalf of Inter IKEA Systems, said.
In a statement, IKEA Group said excluding women from the Saudi version of the catalogue was not in line with its values. IKEA on its websites says women change the world and that taking responsibility for people is a pre-requisite for doing good business.
"I simply think it is silly. We exist in a society with women and men. You can't just remove women," Sara Altawil, an IKEA shopper in Sweden, told commercial broadcaster TV4. "I'm Arab, I'm Muslim but I simply think women exist in society and should take part."
Saudi King Abdullah has made limited moves to make it easier for women to work and last year said that they would be allowed to vote and run for office in all future municipal elections, the only public polls held in the monarchy.
He also said women would be appointed to the Shoura Council, which advises the government on policy.
IKEA franchisee Al Sulaiman, which runs the three IKEA stores in Saudi Arabia, was not immediately available for comment.
Privately held IKEA has 338 stores around the world, of which 40 are run by external franchisees.
Reporting by Anna Ringstrom, additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Riyadh, editing by Paul Casciato